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Middlesbrough column: The January window was big, but February is crucial
Friday, 5th Feb 2021 17:18 by Jake Emmerson

After starting 2021 so well at Wycombe, it’s been a spluttering set of performances.

An impressive win at the City Ground (where Boro have only won twice since 2000) followed a week later by a 3-0 surrender to Rotherham, in the bottom 3 and with only one win over Boro since the 1960s!

As far as points per game go, January was ‘middling’ for the season (1.17pts per game). However, the combination of some poor performances and some even poorer refereeing decisions, with two ex-managers coming away with wins at the Riverside to boot, meant it felt like one of the worst months of the season.

Thus it remains the fact that Boro have not won a January home league game in 13 attempts since beating Derby 2-0 in 2016 (D6, L7). This was something Neil Warnock addressed in his press conference before the Rotherham match, saying “so really, our season is going to start after Norwich, we’re going to go on a run in February…”

With 4 Riverside matches this month, poor home form will torpedo any remaining hopes of the play-offs. As it is, February looks to have the toughest games, with Brentford, Huddersfield, Bristol City and Cardiff coming to the Riverside along with trips to Reading and Derby.

If Warnock can galvanise a magic month and Boro can go on a run, we could potentially see the momentum of two of the top four halted, with Brentford unbeaten in the league since 24th October, and Reading unbeaten since Boxing Day. We could also gain some breathing space from the chasing pack, with Bristol City only 1 point behind and Cardiff and Huddersfield less than 10 behind - by no means an insurmountable gap by Championship standards.

The breakneck pace of fixtures will continue but Boro now have the extra firepower to help contend with the fatigue. Yannick Bolasie was followed in by Nathaniel Mendez-Laing and Neeskens Kebano, injecting some much needed pace into the forward line. Securing Duncan Watmore on a longer contract was also a key piece of business.

The defence was also bolstered by the arrival of Darnell Fisher who has already made a great start in winning over the Boro fans after his performance against Norwich. Added to this, the returns of Grant Hall and Ashley Fletcher from injury and quick recovery of Dael Fry suddenly gives Warnock the closest thing he has had to a selection dilemma in his tenure.

The area of most concern in terms of depth is now the midfield. The trusted trio of Howson, Morsy and Saville remain but, with Wing leaving on loan and Tavernier injured, any injuries or suspensions could hurt. It may be that with more attacking options, Warnock chooses to implement a 4-2-3-1 formation or a 3-4-3 over the typical 4-3-3 that we have seen for much of the season.

As well as Tavernier, Boro will be hoping to see the swift return of Anfernee Dijksteel to the squad. Although the arrival of Fisher will help to shore up the right back position, Warnock will be keen to get one of his form players back into the side. Of the 6 games Dijksteel has missed, Boro have only won 1, losing 4. The return dates for both players have been kept vague so it remains to be seen how much of February they will miss.

The Brentford fixture looks to be the toughest test. The Bees have won 6 of their last 7 in the league, with an FA Cup win against Boro in the middle of those. They are a much more free scoring side, having scored 3+ goals in 7 league games this season - something Boro have managed 7 times since March 2018. However, Brentford have only kept 1 clean sheet in those 7 wins. Boro were able to keep Norwich out on their own patch last weekend and kept Brentford out at their stadium earlier in the season. There’s no reason they can’t do the same this time around.

Despite 3 wins from their last 4 games, Derby are still in a relegation fight, and Huddersfield have 1 point from 5 games. These are games that Boro should be pushing for maximum points from if they are to put themselves in play-off contention, but as Birmingham and Rotherham proved, it’s all too easy to come a cropper.

Boro were the only team to take a point from Reading in their first 8 games and have won on their last 3 visits to the Madjeski, and in October they grabbed a win at Ashton Gate in what many would consider to be Boro’s best performance of the season. Getting 4 points from these 2 games would be a reasonable return.

The final match of the month may be the game which Warnock would like to win the most – against his latest former club, Cardiff. The draw in the reverse fixture will only add fuel to the fire, with their equaliser coming from a corner despite appeals for a foul on Saville. Cardiff have endured a poor run of form which has seen Neil Harris sacked (Warnock making no attempt to disguise his schadenfreude) and the appointment of Championship veteran, Mick McCarthy. As with any game against Cardiff, it will be a tightly-fought, physical affair which rounds off 5 games in 14 days.

If Boro were to see the same results as in the reverse games for this month, it would give them 9 points from 6 games. With the opponents taken into consideration, this would not be a terrible return. However with the dip in form in January, if they are aiming to mount a play-off challenge, 12 points should be the minimum target.

After the Rotherham performance, it was difficult to see how Boro could be realistic contenders for promotion. But a week, a point and 4 signings later, things are looking far more positive. Fans are excited again and hope is starting to creep back in. If Bolasie, Mendez-Laing and Fletcher can reach match sharpness soon then things may start to look a lot more positive at the top end of the pitch.

While you can never say never when it comes to the Championship, this month will likely determine Boro’s prospects for the rest of the season. For now, all we can hope is that Warnock can work his magic and see that run in February he talked about become a reality.

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